Saturday, December 25, 2021

We wish you a nerdy Xmas!

[This is a transcript of the video embedded below. Some of the explanations may not make sense without the animations in the video.]

Happy holidays everybody, today we’re celebrating Isaac Newton’s birthday with a hand selected collection of nerdy Christmas facts that you can put to good use in every appropriate and inappropriate occasion.

You have probably noticed that in recent years worshipping Newton on Christmas has become somewhat of a fad on social media. People are wishing each other a happy Newtonmas rather than Christmas because December 25th is also Newton’s birthday. But did you know that this fad is more than a century old?

In 1891, The Japan Daily Mail reported that a society of Newton worshippers had sprung up at the University of Tokyo. It was founded, no surprise, by mathematicians and physicists. It was basically a social club for nerds, with Newton’s picture residing over meetings. The members were expected to give speeches and make technical jokes that only other members would get. So kind of like physics conferences basically.

The Japan Daily Mail also detailed what the nerds considered funny. For example, on Christmas, excuse me, Newtonmas, they’d have a lottery in which everyone drew a paper with a scientists’ name and then got a matching gift. So if you drew Newton you’d get an apple, if you drew Franklin a kite, Archimedes got you a naked doll, and Kant-Laplace would get you a puff of tobacco into your face. That was supposed to represent the Nebular Hypothesis. What’s that? That’s the idea that solar systems form from gas clouds, and yes, that was first proposed by Immanuel Kant. No, it doesn’t rhyme to pissant, sorry.

Newton worship may not have caught on, but nebular hypotheses certainly have.

By the way, did you know that Xmas isn’t an atheist term for Christmas? The word “Christ” in Greek is Christos written like this (Χριστός.) That first letter is called /kaɪ/ and in the Roman alphabet it becomes an X. It’s been used as an abbreviation for Christ since at least the 15th century.

However, in the 20th century the abbreviation has become somewhat controversial among Christians because the “X” is now more commonly associated with a big unknown. So, yeah, use at your own risk. Or maybe stick with Happy Newtonmas after all?

Well that is controversial too because it’s not at all cl

ear that Newton’s birthday is actually December 25th. Isaac Newton was born on December 25, 1642 in England.

But. At that time, the English still used the Julian calendar. That is already confusing because the new, Gregorian calendar, was introduced by Pope Gregory in 1584, well before Newton’s birth. It replaced the older, Julian calendar, that didn’t properly match the months to the orbit of Earth around the sun.

Yet, when Pope Gregory introduced the new calendar, the British were mostly Anglicans and they weren’t going to have some pope tell them what to do. So for over a hundred years, people in Great Britain celebrated Christmas 10 or 11 days later than most of Europe. Newton was born during that time. Great Britain eventually caved in and adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1751. They passed a law that overnight moved all dates forward by 11 days. So now Newton would have celebrated his birthday on January 4th, except by that time he was dead.

However, it gets more difficult because these two calendars continue running apart, so if you’d run forward the old Julian calendar until today, then December 25th according to the old calendar would now actually be January 7th. So, yeah, I think sorting this out will greatly enrich your conversation over Christmas lunch. By the way, Greece didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1923. Except for the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos, of course, which still uses the Gregorian calendar.

Regardless of exactly which day you think Newton was born, there’s no doubt he changed the course of science and with that the course of the world. But Newton was also very religious. He spent a lot of time studying the Bible looking for numerological patterns. On one occasion he argued, I hope you’re sitting, that the Pope is the anti-Christ, based in part on the appearance of the number 666 in scripture. Yeah, the Brits really didn’t like the Catholics, did they.

Newton also, at the age of 19 or 20, had a notebook in which he kept a list of sins he had committed such as eating an apple at the church, making pies on Sunday night, “Robbing my mother’s box of plums and sugar” and “Using Wilford’s towel to spare my own”. Bad boy. Maybe more interesting is that Newton recorded his secret confessions in a cryptic code that was only deciphered in 1964. There are still four words that nobody has been able to crack. If you get bored over Christmas, you can give it a try yourself, link’s in the info below.

Newton may now be most famous for inventing calculus and for Newton’s laws and Newtonian gravity, all of which sound like he was a pen on paper person. But he did some wild self-experiments that you can put to good use for your Christmas conversations. Merry Christmas, did you know that Newton once poked a needle into his eye? I think this will go really well.

Not a joke. In 1666, when he was 23, Newton, according to his own records, poked his eye with a bodkin, which is more or less a blunt stitching needle. In his own words “I took a bodkine and put it between my eye and the bone as near to the backside of my eye as I could: and pressing my eye with the end of it… there appeared several white dark and coloured circles.”

If this was not crazy enough, in the same year, he also stared at the Sun taking great care to first spend some time in a dark room so his pupils would be wide open when he stepped outside. Here is how he described this in a letter to John Locke 30 years later:
“in a few hours’ time I had brought my eyes to such a pass that I could look upon no bright object with either eye but I saw the sun before me, so that I could neither write nor read... I began in three or four days to have some use of my eyes again & by forbearing a few days longer to look upon bright objects recovered them pretty well.”
Don’t do this at home. Since we’re already talking about needles, did you know that pine needles are edible? Yes, they are edible and some people say they taste like vanilla, so you can make ice cream with them. Indeed, they are a good source of vitamin C and were once used by sailors to treat and prevent scurvy.

By some estimate, scurvy killed more than 2 million sailors between the 16th and 18th centuries. On a long trip it was common to lose about half of the crew, but in extreme cases it could be worse. On his first trip to India in 1499, Vasco da Gama reportedly lost 116 of 170 men, almost all to scurvy.

But in 1536, the crew of the French explorer Jacques Cartier was miraculously healed from scurvy upon arrival in what is now Québec. The miracle cure was a drink that the Iroquois prepared by boiling winter leaves and the bark from an evergreen tree, which was rich in vitamin C.

So, if you’ve run out of emphatic sounds to make in response to aunt Emma, just take a few bites off the Christmas tree, I’m sure that’ll lighten things up a bit.

Speaking of lights. Christmas lights were invented by no other than Thomas Edison. According to the Library of Congress, Edison created the first strand of electric lights in 1880, and he hung them outside his laboratory in New Jersey, during Christmastime. Two years later, his business partner Edward Johnson had the idea to wrap a strand of hand-wired red, white, and blue bulbs around a Christmas tree. So maybe take a break with worshipping Newton and spare a thought for Edison.

But watch out when you put the lights on the tree. According to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, in 2018, 17,500 people sought treatment at a hospital for injuries sustained while decorating for the holiday.

And this isn’t the only health risk on Christmas. In 2004 researchers in the United States found that people are much more likely to die from heart problems than you expect both on Christmas and on New Year. A 2018 study from Sweden made a similar finding. The authors of the 2004 study speculate that the reason may be that people delay seeking treatment during the holidays. So if you feel unwell don’t put off seeing a doctor even if it’s Christmas.

And since we’re already handing out the cheerful news, couples are significantly more likely to break up in the weeks before Christmas. This finding comes from a 2008 paper by British researchers who analyzed facebook status updates. Makes you wonder, do people break up because they can’t agree which day Newton was born or do they just not want to see their in-laws? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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